Anti-Kremlin fighters have turned 2 border regions into ‘active combat’ zones: Ukrainian official

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A senior Ukrainian intelligence official said on Thursday that armed groups he described as Russians opposed to the Kremlin were pressing an incursion into Russian territory and had turned two border regions into “active combat zones.”

But the governor of one of the Russian regions hit by the attacks said, after a visit to villages in an area, that hostile troops were no longer there.

Three Ukraine-based groups issued statements saying they were pursuing armed operations in Belgorod and Kursk regions and asking residents to evacuate towns and villages for their own safety.

“Kursk and Belgorod regions are now an area of active combat actions. This is what we confirm,” Andriy Yusov, a spokesperson for the GUR intelligence directorate, told national television.

“And as stated by the volunteers and rebels, we are talking about Russian citizens who, having no other options, are defending their civil right with arms against the Putin regime.”

Vyachslav Gladkov, governor of Russia’s Belgorod region, said in an account posted on Telegram that there were no Ukrainian forces in one of the areas that had come under attack.

“I can state that there are no Ukrainian troops on the territory of the region,” he wrote in the account posted after midnight local time. “The fighting is taking place outside it.”

But Gladkov said the village of Kozinka “was badly hit. The damage is very serious.” Residents had been evacuated to places where they were now safe.

Gladkov earlier said that two people were killed and at least 20 injured in attacks by Ukrainian armed forces.

Russian military bloggers had earlier reported that Russian paratroops had been dispatched Kozinka. Russia’s Defence Ministry said it had foiled an attack by the Ukrainian army.

A drone is seen flying above Belgorod, Russia, on Thursday.
A drone flying over Belgorod Thursday. (AFP/Getty Images)

Kursk’s regional governor, Roman Starovoit, gave few details, but noted on Telegram that “Ukrainian terrorists have not stopped their attempts to bring saboteurs into our territory.”

One of the three armed groups, the Freedom of Russia Legion, said on Telegram that in view of the “limited military operation” being conducted in the two regions, it was asking residents of certain towns to leave the area.

A second, the Siberian Battalion, said it had observed a mood of panic in the town of Grayvoron — next to Kozinka — with cars queuing to leave.

Two of the groups had reported launching a cross-border incursion earlier this week.

External influence?

In the past, Russian officials have cast the groups as puppets of the Ukrainian military and U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, which Moscow says is trying to foment chaos in Russia.

The Freedom of Russia legion and the Russian Volunteer Corps have previously claimed responsibility for other cross-border raids into Russia from Ukraine.

Cross-border attacks in the area have occurred sporadically since the war began and have been the subject of claims and counterclaims, as well as disinformation and propaganda.

The Belgorod region has seen repeated drone attacks and has even been accidentally bombed by a Russian warplane over the course of the conflict. Its regional capital of the same name was the site of a deadly Ukrainian strike in December, which shocked residents.

The Ukrainian assaults on Russian territory in recent days, including long-range drone attacks and alleged incursions by Ukraine-based Russian proxies, have come as Putin’s expected re-election nears.

A woman walks past a mural depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin, in Simferopol, in occupied Crimea.
A woman walks along a street Tuesday near a mural depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin in Simferopol, in occupied Crimea. The mural reads: ‘Crimea is our common heritage.’ (Alexey Pavlishak/Reuters)

Putin has sought to persuade Russians to keep him in power against a backdrop of what he says are foreign threats to the country.

Since coming to power almost 25 years ago, Putin, now 71, has eliminated nearly all independent media and opposition voices in Russia, particularly after the 2022 full-scale invasion of Ukraine that initially went badly wrong.

Analysts say the Kremlin is worried about low turnout during the three days of voting that begin Friday and needs Russians to participate to give legitimacy to Putin, who is almost certain to win another six-year term.

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As Kyiv marks two years since Russia’s invasion, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has revealed 31,000 Ukrainian soldiers have died fighting. He also hinted at a planned offensive while urging allies for more support.

Sam Greene, with the Center for European Policy Analysis in Washington, called Russia’s election “a sham.”

“The Kremlin controls who’s on the ballot. The Kremlin controls how they can campaign,” Greene told The Associated Press.

“To say nothing of being able to control every aspect of the voting and the vote counting process.”

Kyiv waits for delayed Western aid

Despite Russia’s early difficulties in the war, when its assault on Kyiv failed and Western countries came to Ukraine’s aid by sending weapons and training troops, the Kremlin’s forces now have battlefield initiative, military analysts say.

A woman and child walk behind an "I Love Ukraine" sign in Kyiv.
A woman and child walk behind a ‘I Love Ukraine’ sign in Kyiv on Thursday. (Vadim Ghirda/The Associated Press)

That is largely because Western aid has petered out due to European shortages and is now being held up in the United States by political differences.

The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think-tank, said Russian forces “have the theatre-wide initiative and will be able to determine the time, location, and scale of offensive operations” on the battlefield for now.

The International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) said Russia’s assault is gaining momentum and the coming months are “critical to the direction of conflict.”

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg warned Thursday that delays in deliveries to Ukraine are costing lives.

“The Ukrainians are not running out of courage, they are running out of ammunition,” Stoltenberg told reporters in Brussels.

While Ukraine wrestles with increasingly meagre battlefield resources, Russia has significantly expanded its own weapons production and is getting ammunition from Iran and North Korea.

That bodes badly for Ukraine once Putin has cemented his grip on power, the IISS said in a report Wednesday.

It predicted a likely Russian effort in the months ahead “to mount a series of major attacks designed to inflict Ukrainian casualties, push defenders westward and expand its control of occupied territories.”

For now, it said, “the land war looks bloody” and favours Moscow.

Ukrainian soldier are seen firing a howitzer toward Russian troops, near the front line in the Kherson region.
Ukrainian soldier are seen firing a howitzer toward Russian troops on Tuesday, near the front line area in the Kherson region. (Serhii Nuzhnenk/Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe/Reuters)



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